One thing I understood in Tianjin: life as an expat can be lonely. Beijing and Shanghai have growing populations of foreigners now, and there is a grain of good among the numbers. But – Koreans excepted – they still think of Tianjin as a frontier town; and as such, it appeals to a weird mob.

Roughly speaking, there’s four types of expats in Tianjin. The first are the mechanics. Aerospace technicians flown over from Toulouse to train local staff in the new Airbus factory. Or similar profiles, I suppose, from other countries. In France, they’re normal people – a good job, but no particular status attached. In China, they think they’re on top of the world. And so come out with a string of pseudo-wise judgements about the country: ‘they just haven’t evolved’, ‘it’s hard to get them to work’ or even ‘it’s a new country, that’s what I like about it’. Painful.

The second are the Gold Diggers. They read about the Tianjin boom – 15% of GDP growth per year in the middle of the GFC. They heard it will be the main Financial centre in East Asia – some time in the future. So they came early, to get their shares in the local market at early bird’s price. I met one of those in a bar, receding hair and Lenin-style glasses, a waitress hanging on his neck. He thought he was inventing cool. His bar-snack was opening soon. There would be kebabs.

The come the spouses, a more interesting and varied mix. They come in two kinds: European partner, or Chinese partner. The first are handbag housewives, who spend their husband’s expat package on maids and manicure. Most are not working, and spend their days complaining about the life of luxury they live in China, pining after a proper baguette or a nice cup of coffee with milk.

The second are more colourful – and come in both genders. They came first as a student, or on a visit; they met a Chinese partner, and they decided to stay. Most of those work as language teachers, or in some sort of mediating role. As time passes, they become more and more Chinese, and talk of how everything is changing. They have a touch of sadness to them – life in China can be tough – but they’re settled here, have respect for people around, and make an effort to understand. The one problem with them is – newcomers endanger their exceptional status; and though they are a worthy lot, they tend to know better than you.

Finally come the students. They’re in China to learn Chinese, for a year, or just a few months. Either Tianjin was not their first choice, or they come from a remote place. But they’re enjoying it, or try to. They write blogs, go to cafes, and have a try at market food with adventurous internationals. On week-ends, they train to Beijing and hang out around the cool bars.


There is a place in China fully devoted to creation. The 798 art zone in Beijing.

798 (pronounce ‘qi jiu ba‘) is a Melburnian (North) fantasy come true, with:


red public art (a lego Venus de Milo)

playful political posters on animal rights

red public art (caged dinosaurs)

Italian food

pointless cute shops

and expensive cafes (with graffiti view)

798 is an expression of Beijing’s secondary function. Apart from being China’s political and administrative capital, it is also the country’s cultural capital. Only Chinese city (Hong Kong excepted) where services clearly dominate industry, Beijing is the place to be for film-makers, designers and IT start ups.

Here’s a Beijing creative story: a friend went to Paris to study fashion, then moved back to Beijing. She found a job as a stylist in one of these new Chinese brands who try to replace the old ‘made in China’ label with posher ‘created in China’. She works in the team of a French stylist (ex- from Chanel), drawing fabric patterns for clothes. Once in a while, she flies to inner Mongolia, where the fabric factories are), to bring in new patterns and check the quality. Then, she rushes to SanLiTun or 798 for a bitch about backward Inner Mongolia with her fashion buddies, around a foccaccia and smoothie.

Sure sign that 798 is the creative place to be, a friend said about it: ‘it used to be really cool, but it’s too commercial now’. The radicals are gone, or they stay quiet. The creative class has taken over.

China pop

China’s entering global imagination through images and symbols. The Great Wall, Mao, pandas, terracotta warriors, Shanghai girls and Beijing Hutongs are somehow all part of a same ‘China province’ in the realm of global kitsch imagery.

Tourist shops offer multiple reproductions of this China kitsch in two dimensions, offering a choice between 30s oriental glamour, 60s red propaganda, and 90s childish exuberance.

In the height of Chinese communism, propaganda developed its own ‘pop’ aesthtics to convey official messages. These posters from the past have lost their agressive edge (or at least, the edge has gone slightly blunt), and are now somewhat nostalgic of a time when everything was clear-cut and simpler. Made innocuous (or less obviously mind-controlling) by the change in style, 50s war propaganda can be used as ‘pop’ decoration on the walls of a NanLuoGuXiang edgy card shop.

The figure of the Chairman itself, in its various propagandised incarnations, has taken on some sort of ‘ostalgic’ pop flavour – like the ‘Mao’ cafes which appear in Chinatowns around the world – eroding the revolutionary radicalism of his figure, keeping only the safe image of a benevolent grand-father figure.

Moo’s figure, reproduced now in many shapes and colours, is probably the poppest object in China now – highly ideological, but also rather innocuous – somewhere in-between the White Goddess and the Blessed Virgin Mary, Marylin and Che Guevara.

China’s not only relying on its past for pop. Artists have developed a very distinct contemporary ‘pop’ aesthetic of hilarious faces and distorted bodies. We could easily interpret their exagerated joviality as Chinese triumphalism – mixed with ironic criticism of exuberant capitalism in a communist country. We could also just welcome its playfulness, as a relative aesthetic success.

Pop has a strength of its own. With the rise of China, these images are likely to take on a certain ‘coolness’. Maybe teenagers will start wearing the laughing faces on t-shirts, or pinning them on their bedroom walls? Already, Chinese writing is all the rage for tattoos. And these images, pop and innocent looking as they are, carry a lot of ideology, like all pop culture does.

So we should welcome the arrival of China pop among the global federation of kitsch, as a powerful rush of new blood. But we should also try to clearly map out its ideological programme. There is danger – but also potential for fun – and maybe, Chinese and Western pop could cancel out each other, allowing for richer forms of life, more existential options – and who knows, more freedom from mass-produced imagery?


In general, it works both ways. China’s exotic for Europeans. Europe’s exotic for Chinese people – often in a somewhat undiscriminate way, same as we pack together Vietnam, Thailand and Japan under the label ‘Asian.

Still sometimes, the results of that Euro-drive can be surprising – like that weird affection for all things German in Tianjin: German products and German bars on 1902 street, German beer stalls outside JinWan plaza or, even stranger, the ‘Golden Hans’ bar in the Tesco centre.

One particularly interesting manifestation of this exoticism is linguistic. Not so much the famous ‘Asian-English’ on signs, t-shirts and stationery (my favourite was a girl wearing ‘panda, panda, I love to cuddle the cute animals’). But rather, the relatively well written, yet weirdly kitsch sentences about happiness and freedom, like this one on the walls a PingAnJie concept cafe – fashion shop.

Sometimes, the foreign word is a commercial argument in itself – like ‘c’estbon’ water (literally, ‘it’s good’) – made in China, with added French glam.

Sometimes, a touch of euro-language can glamour up a whole room – like this Italian wisdom clock from a design shop in 798 district.

Or sometimes, it’s just a spray of Greek alphabet on a black wall which, somehow, will appeal to the customer – conjuring up a dream of classic elegance, romaticism and sophistication.



I’ve seen them before. I’ve seen them on a bus in Thailand, talking about Kho Pipi. I’ve seen them at Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh city, ordering a banana pancake. I’ve heard they’d reached up to Laos, then Yunnan. But I thought northern China was safe. Not a good place for them. Hostile, even.

They found a microclimate in Beijing, around HouHai.

That’s where I saw the first signs of them.

And then, I spotted them.

They’re on the street, perplexing locals.

Soon, their temples will be everywhere.

And their particular custom become the new norm.

And I have a terrible question in my head. I was there to see them. With them. Was I, then – ever – one of them? Are they my secret, hidden, shameful brothers and sisters?


The word will be familiar to any foreigner who’s been to Beijing – and probably to many Chinese people too. SanLiTun is an area of Beijing located around the ’embassy area’, three kilometres north east from the centre of the city – literally, the name ‘SanLiTun means ‘three milestones’.

When you’ve been in China for a while, SanLiTun is a happy respite. You can find everything there, like:

a trendy cafe that serves a decent soy latte.

a silver porsche

posh apartment buildings with matching vertical and horizontal white lines.

It is a backpackers’ paradise (it started as ‘a bar street’), as well as a playground for the children of brand-conscious aspirational Chinese people – and their parents.

Incidentally, many diplomats and journalists hang out there a lot. Some say the Village Starbucks is full of spies, or mikes. No doubt Many discussions that will end up having a profound impact on the world take place around these ‘puccinos.

Yet – surprisingly? – the place is also quite boring, and seriously daggy, like a cheap holiday resort in a sunny place.


World Music

I’ve been exposed to a lot of Chinese music these days – most of it in taxis, but also cafes and restaurants. Interestingly, I discovered that the concept of ‘world music’ as cool has come to Tianjin.

There is a little underground cafe, in the XiaoBaiLou gallery. I sat there one morning for about an hour, sipping on my cup of ‘charcoal cofeee’ (which was a sort of slightly sour latte – 10 kuai).

I was reading a book, and not paying much attention to the music, but then I heard it was no longer Chinese. A woman’s voice was repeating ‘aligato, aligato’. I started listening: international selection. Japanese, Chinese, then Italian, and even a French song. All in the ‘So Frenchy so chic’ international lounge style, in line with the minimal-cute East Asian aesthetics of the place.

A few days later, I heard a man’s mobile phone ringing – a brazilian tune: ‘voce voce… cançao, cançao’. Judging on the man, there was even something slightly daggy about it…